I’m flying down Sherman’s Pass at Bolton Valley, working hard to keep up with my team. We are bombing along and Justin, who is in a sit down bi-ski, can’t get enough. He wants more turns. He wants to carve. He wants woods. He wants speed! Even though Justin has disabilities that limit the use of his arms and legs, he loves skiing. He literally beams when we hit the trails. He likes to be the first one out and the last one in. Here I am, a newbie volunteer with Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports (VASS), trying not to hold Justin back.
As a life-long skier, I find it fascinating trying new teaching techniques and skiing strategies. Yet as an adaptive skiing volunteer, I have found myself challenged a number of times in ways that I never could have anticipated. I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned so far from volunteering with VASS and hopefully inspire others (yes, I’m looking at you as I write this!) to consider volunteering their time on the hill for adaptive sports programs.
I decided to volunteer for many reasons, one of which is that when you’ve been skiing for 27 years, sometimes you find yourself in need of a new challenge. Maybe it’s an East Wall chute at Arapahoe Basin. Maybe it’s Mad River Glen’s trees. Or maybe it’s trying Telemark skiing. For me, this year I decided it was volunteering. It also helps that I have more free time this winter since I’ve been working part-time and couldn’t afford a ski pass. Many of the volunteers are retirees and students who also find themselves seeking to fill their free time on a limited income.
So what can one expect as a VASS adaptive skiing volunteer? The same things you could expect as a VASS participant: safety, fun, and learning. First of all, their training is very thorough and focused on safely preparing volunteers for the types of disabilities, ages, and needs they might encounter. In addition to the day-long Skiing 101/Snowboarding 101 clinics, which covers basic techniques for teaching “never evers” (absolute beginners) how to ski or snowboard, volunteers can also choose an additional day-long clinic in the following break-out categories: blind/visually impaired guiding, sit-down skiing, developmental disabilities, emotional-behavioral training, and race team training. Returning volunteers can also choose from a number of PSIA adaptive clinics to help learn new tricks and tips from highly qualified instructors.
Second l, it is a lot of fun! There’s a reason why VASS, alone, has over 400 volunteers. We laugh a lot. We high five a lot. We cheer, cajole, co-lead, and commiserate a lot. Truthfully, it’s pretty had not to feel good about doing this volunteer gig. You get to see tangible results and get to help share the love of our amazing sport. Sometimes you might end up simply playing games in the snow. You are there to support the VASS mission, which is to empower individuals with disabilities, and promote independence and further equality through access and instruction to sports and recreational activities. Truly, this experience is about being outside, enjoying winter, and boosting confidence no matter what the ability level.
Lastly, there’s always more to learn. Every student, along with every instructor and every body (whatever its abilities), is different. You really have to be flexible, creative, and up for anything. And learning adaptive techniques yourself can be particularly appealing. There are many different types of adaptive equipment, and learning how to use them will take time and practice.
This winter I am learning how to work with the sit-down ski for skiers with limited or no use of their lower extremities. Such skiers might also have poor trunk stability or limited arm strength/use/control. There are a couple of different types of adaptive equipment for the sit down skier: bi-ski and mono-ski. The mono-ski is often preferred by independent, self-loading skiers; it requires a high level of trunk stability as it can really carve fast turns with its single ski and forearm outriggers.
Meanwhile, the bi-ski has two skis attached to the seat and is much more stable. It is ideal for skiers with limited trunk stability and upper body strength. The bi-ski requires a team: an instructor to hold onto the chair (or “bucket”) and steer it down the hill. This is called “bucketing.” In another technique, instructor holds onto two long webbing straps (or “tethers”) that connect to the back of bi-ski bucket and controls the speed. This is called “tethering.” The team will ensure the skier is sitting safely inside the seat, assist with chairlift loading and unloading procedures, and pilot the skier down the hill while maintaining speed and control.
I learned so much from my volunteer mentors at Bolton Valley. Ron and Brandon are both returning veterans who let me tag along and assist with bi-ski lessons and then kindly offered to tutor me in the techniques of bucketing and tethering. Bucketing involves a bit more finesse: I found it really fun to feel the power of the bi-skis and steer down the fall lines and slope angles. The bi-ski is extremely responsive and carves like a World Cup champion.
Tethering, meanwhile, is a little more disconnected but essential. As a strong, confident female telemark skier, I could easily control the speed via the webbing straps from behind the apparatus. Overall I found it very interesting to experience how the team has to build trust together. You travel as a harmonized unit and the velocity of the bi-ski makes it feel like a roller-coaster ride. Often I found myself amazed at our speed, and whooped aloud at the sheer delight of flying down a straightaway or cresting a fun roller.
Obviously not every lesson will be running blue squares off the chairlift. As a volunteer, you might be working with a wide range of ages and disabilities, and you must be able to bring a positive attitude to the hill. Sometimes it might require hard physical labor—picking little kids up over and over and over again—but the important thing is to recognize that skiing and snowboarding is fun no matter what. Volunteering for VASS is really a return to the basics: sharing the love of our sport and building a passion for outdoor recreation for every body.
Vermont Volunteer Basics:
- Regardless of when or why you want to volunteer, VASS asks that volunteers sign up for at least five days over the course of the ski season at any of the three locations where the programs are run: Pico, Sugarbush, or Bolton Valley.
- New and returning volunteers must attend pre-season orientation (usually held in November) held at the individual locations, as well as two full-day pre-season clinics in teaching adaptive techniques and strategies (usually held in the beginning of December).
- Volunteers can snowboard, alpine ski, or telemark ski and should be in decent shape and able to confidently handle blue square terrain. New volunteers will never lead a lesson; but instead will shadow or assist until they feel comfortable taking the reins. Generally there are always two to three instructors with each individual lesson which can be either a half or full day.
- While one doesn’t need the latest fancy equipment, you do need to have a helmet and be dressed for standing around in cold weather. Hand warmers and boot heaters are a big plus!
- For each full day that one volunteers as a lead or assistant instructor, VASS and its sponsor ski resorts will grant a full-day comp ticket at the same mountain. However, you must pre-arrange the day you plan to use the ticket in advance. You cannot simply show up on a powder day and expect to get your comp ticket handed over without a good 24 hours notice to the VASS volunteer coordinator.
- Bolton, Pico, and Sugarbush each have their own volunteer coordinators. Contact them if you are interested in more information. Volunteer trainings and orientation will begin for the next season in November 2012.
Adaptive Snowsports Programs
If you have some sort of physical challenge that you think might keep you off the slopes, or if you want to help differently-abled people enjoy the slopes, there are lots of GREAT programs in New England, New York and Quebec that will be happy to prove to you that you can do it. Here are some:
F.S.H.E. / E.T.D.S.F. (Eastern Townships Disabled Skiers Foundation)